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It's About Time To Start Your Own Startup

Lu Li speaking at TECH(K)NOW Day in March, 2017
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About this talk

Lu will take you on her journey from the corporate world to starting her own startup. She will also read an excerpt from her book Dear Female Founders.


Well it's so great to see all of you guys here. Packed room, I didn't expect that. I hope you had a very enjoyable morning, and my talk today is gonna, as you can see, It's About Time to Start Your Own Startup. It is a bit of a derivation from a TED talk I have done last year, and yeah, so without further ado, I'm just gonna get into it. If you want to tweet, please do. My handle is there, and obviously #IWD2017. Alright, so! It's about time! I thought to myself, when I was looking outside of the window of my apartment in Frankfurt. That's the view, it was pretty nice. I was in Germany, and I was working for Procter & Gamble. I was the brand manager for Pantene and I was having a quite interesting, you know, corporate career, I learned tonnes, I'd launched two collections of shampoo, conditioners and treatments across western Europe, loads of responsibility, and great people that I was working with. But that was in May 2011, actually, no that's not true, 12. 2012. And I found myself suddenly in a situation where I got a new boss and we didn't get along. But that alone is not, sort of, the crucial fact, you can work on your relationship with your boss, right? But then he got a new boss, himself, and they didn't get along either. So! So I was sitting there and it was Sunday, and I was like, man, this sucks. You know, it's really out of my influence. What can I do? I can work on my own relationship with my own boss, trying to, you know, give them feedback, get feedback, and you do this back and forth that you all know, and try to like, you know, bring him on my side and prove that I'm actually worth for the next promotion, for this project, or that. But I can't really kind of influence his relationship. And in the corporate-- actually, show of hands, who's working in the corporate? Just so I can ... And who is a startup founder? Okay, and everybody else, studying? Too shy? Okay, we need to change this, please, don't be too shy. And so everyone who is working in the corporate, the whole game, you're gonna lose it if you don't have influence on, like, the decision-maker that's kind of like two levels above you because they're pretty much going to decide on your career, and I was sitting there and I was like, okay, this is not going to happen for me, I'm not gonna win this game, I'm not gonna get the promotion I want, I'm not gonna get the project I want, and, you know, what do I do? And I was sitting there, and I was 28 years old. I studied business, I took business school in Germany, I had about five years of professional work experience, and I thought, you know what, it's about time to start my own thing! Because if you are frustrated in an environment where you have to report to other people, and it's kind of out of your influence, you know, your progress is out of your influence, then, for me, the logical conclusion was, I have to work for myself. And make my own destiny. So I thought, okay, why not? Let's do this. I left my corporate career, I quit my job, I moved to Zurich because I was kind of on a Swiss contract and it was easier to start over there, and I kind of switched from being a sort of complete corporate soldiers, and these are all the companies I used to work for, whether as an intern or as an employee, so you see, like, a lot. I actually switched to become an entrepreneur, because I thought, if I don't do it now, I will totally regret it. You know, if I continue this journey for five more years, or many more years, I'm gonna get way to comfortable in my seat on my couch, potentially with my children, I don't know, and I'm not going to take that risk. And I will probably regret it. I really felt like I would regret the decision not to take action in that very moment, looking out to the river. So I quit, and my life as entrepreneur started. And I have to tell you that when I started, I was very confident about my own skills. Because, you know, I went to business school, I had work experience, all that, I'd worked with great companies, everything I've done so far in my life had totally worked out. Except for this boss situation, fine. So I thought, okay. Let's do something that builds on my strengths, that I enjoy, I was working in beauty care, as you know, and I was, had a lot of friends that were in middle management as well, and were looking to get a next promotion, et cetera, et cetera. So I thought, well, I mean, you know, I'm kind of unhappy about this situation of how few women get into leadership roles in the corporate, et cetera, and I really think it links back to their image, their own sort of, you know, how they behave in the corporate, how they fight for themselves, and communicate their achievements. So I trained as a personal stylist and image consultant to do exactly that. What I didn't know at the time was that the business model has zero repeat business, because once you kind of like consult something, you fix somebody, like, they're happy, they go away, they never come back to you. So what I ended up doing was that I spent 80 to 90% of my time in business development and actually getting a client, and only 10% of the actual work that I enjoy doing. And it just because very tedious over time and after a year and a half I thought, okay, no. That's not for me, maybe this whole lifestyle of building your strengths, following your, doing what you love kinda thing, doesn't work. So let's put our consulting hat on, you probably saw, I used to work for McKinsey as well, let's put our consulting hat on and chase a really big market opportunity, because obviously, that's gonna work out, right? Marketing opportunities never fails. So I came to London about three years ago and I started the consulting company in the tourism space, and it was called Captivate China, and the mission of the company was to help retailers and hotels captivate the Chinese travel market. Because there's more and more Chinese people travelling in the world, 100 million to be precise, and they're spending a lot of money around the world, but nobody really understands them from a cultural perspective, and thinks about, sort of, end-to-end marketing strategy to communicate your offering to them before they actually leave the country. And so I've done that, and I came to London, didn't know anybody, I went to the World Travel Market, which is a very big travel fair in London, happens every November. I met my business partner there, she runs a tourism travel agency, marketing agency, and we partnered up, and two months later she called me, I was still in Zurich, she's like, I won the Selfridges account, I want you to come over to London because we have to do this. I was like, okay, cool! So in March the next year, that was in 2014 then, I moved to London, and we started working together on the International Shopper Acquisition Strategy for Selfridges. Very fancy title for, basically, how to get more Chinese people into your shop. Cuz that's essentially what it was. And I've done it for a year, so, I mean, I got tremendous traction from the customers' perspective, I also worked for Fortnum & Mason, we went out and had conversations with Ferragamo, De Beers, like one street up and down, basically, everybody was super interested. But then I realised, I had all of these requests but I couldn't obviously do everything myself, because Selfridges itself was very demanding already. And I kind of came across the problem that I need to get more people, to hire more people to join my company and deliver the same service. And unfortunately, I didn't find anyone. And you would think, London is such a big city, right? And so diverse and so vibrant and, you know, millions and millions of people, but apparently it was very hard to find a Chinese person who was western-educated, had a passion for travel, tourism, and also was able to do consulting. I don't know, I just didn't find anyone. And that's when I realised, okay, the business is not scalable, and I, as a founder, am not interested in running a business that's not scalable. So another things that I didn't know before, actually, I did it, for a year, actually. And then I kind of stepped back and said, okay, I don't want to look for opportunities further because it's not very sustainable, I would totally overwork myself, burn out, and that's never been good. So, left that company as well, just basically closed it down, round up the last consulting gigs, and started Blooming Founders, which is my third company. I'm gonna tell you a bit about it later. But I think, in summary, what I want to show you is that's kind of the summary of my learnings of my first three years of my entrepreneurial life. There is a special happy place for entrepreneurs. And it's kind of easy, I wish somebody would have shown me that when I started, because I had no idea. And all my friends are still in the corporate, actually. But if you look at this infographic, it basically has three bubbles, and says, "What I do well", "What people will pay for", and "What I want to do". So if you take my first business, the image consulting business, I did it well, and I also wanted to do it. But not very, not a lot of people wanted to pay me for it on a regular basis, basically. So that didn't really work out. On the second business, it's something I did do well, what people want to pay me for, but because I couldn't find, you know, more people to join the company, and it wasn't sustainable, I didn't want to do it anymore, after awhile, because I was just exhausting myself. So again, that didn't really work out. So basically, the happy place that, if you're looking to start your own company, is right in the middle of all of these three things and there's a lot of things you don't know before you do it. But when you start out and embark on this journey, try and think about these three areas. And always check in with yourself, is that really, you know, am I still on track? And as you can see, from my story, there's no shame to abandon a business. It's not exactly, I, you know, other people might say I failed at those businesses. It's fine, I don't know, I don't care. But I kind of like, coming from my perspective, I abandoned those businesses because I realised they're not for me. And that's completely fine. And everybody will have a very personal definition, and you know, feeling, to what is right for you to do as a founder. Right, so let's go to Blooming Founders. What do we do? We actually help build the future of innovation-led multi-million dollar, euro, pound, businesses, founded by women. And it's quite a vague sort of mission statement but really what I'm looking to build is a support infrastructure that supports female founders, and that should be the outcome. That women get in touch with the organisation, they get support in the shape of building their networks, educational events, just, you know, connexions and experience and help. And then they will go on and build their own businesses, hopefully in a scalable and sustainable way, generating millions of pounds. So what we actually, sort of, then do in our day-to-day work is I run an online think tank, which essentially is a Facebook group. It's application/invitation-only, but it's basically a place where you can ask everything you want. Because I felt, along my journey, that there are very few women I came across, and most of the women I came across are like me, are solo founders. And if you're a solo founder, there's only a certain amount of things you know, and a tonne of other things you don't know. So having a peer group and a support community is really, really important, because it can really accelerate your progress. I came to London, I invested 4,000 pounds into an exhibition that gave me 400 pounds in return. That wasn't very good, was it. And I didn't, I mean, that was not even the thing that annoyed me. What annoyed me was that I found out later that you were actually able to negotiate the prices of a stand. So I then met people who paid, like, 1,500. And I was like, I wish somebody would have told me that in the beginning, right? But I was new to London, I was like, okay, maybe that's how things work here, right? So basically, you know, it's a great forum for you to do focus groups, get feedback, and just ask for help. We're 1,200 members now, and if you want to take a picture of the link then you can join it. But now, I would like to involve you in a little exercise. So I already noticed, you're a little bit shy. That's okay! But I have put up a very simple question. Since we're all in tech, who are the leaders that you admire most in tech? Shout out, out loud! Elon Musk, good! Yes, who else? Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg, I heard, yes. And? Margaret Hamilton, great, yeah. Sheryl Sandberg, Martha Lane Fox ... What, who? Ah, yup. Yes, amazing, great! So, I mean, I suppose there's sort of a slight bias in this room, cuz we're all women in tech, but this is actually a question that LinkedIn has asked at the end of last year, to 600 founders and investors around the world, and this is the result. So Elon Musk, number one, then Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. And what is the most striking thing about that survey for me is, actually, 92% of survey respondents named a male leader. So that shows you what the perception in the general world, and we are obviously more enlightened, but in the general world, people perceive leaders in tech with a man. And now there's a problem, right? Because obviously, there are a lot of women, we heard a lot about them, just now, who are doing great stuff and making great contributions to the technical world and entrepreneurships and startups. So what I have done, last year, actually, is to put this book together, it's called Dear Female Founder, and it's a book to inspire and encourage more women to become entrepreneurs and start up their own companies, because there are more women graduating from college these days, we all have the same entry-level work experience, and there's no reason why there should be less female founders and entrepreneurs than men. But as a matter of fact, only one out of three founders is a woman, and they are typically, then, not in a CEO role. So this book is designed to change the ratio in entrepreneurship and change the face of entrepreneurship. What I've done is, I've reached out to a bunch of really amazing female founders, and I've asked them to write a personal letter. Because, similar as I shared my personal story and my insights with you, I thought, these women must have learned so much, themselves, as well. And I got a little bit tired of reading interviews, myself, from the media, like, they're all asking the same things. So I thought, why don't you ask them to share, you know, from their own perspective, from the bottom of their hearts, so to speak, in the form of a letter. Either writing it to their younger selves, or to the next generation of female founders, and really share things that they wish somebody would have told them in the beginning, things they learned, and things they would like to pass on. It was important for me to make the book very diverse, so you have 66 women in the book, and they actually work in 20 countries, so it's not just a London perspective or a Silicon Valley perspective. But you have founders from New Zealand, Jordan, Columbia, Indonesia, China, et cetera et cetera. Most of them are in tech, are building scalable businesses, and altogether they've generated, already, $1-billion in revenue, so they're quite substantial women. And also, in terms of age, I tried to make it diverse. The youngest founder was 24 when she contributed, and the oldest was around her 50s. I didn't ask her how old she was, but I tried to do the math. So really, I'm hoping to inspire more women to embark on this journey. It's not an easy journey, it takes time, you'll figure a lot of things out along the way. But just to kind of conclude the talk, it's really about time that more women start up their businesses. It's the best time ever. Leverage, enable through technology, and all the great opportunities we have these days. So all you need to do, really, is to believe in your idea, find an amazing co-founder, build your network, keep learning from others, and just find your happy place, alright? Thank you guys! Cool, so I, yes, exactly! Yeah? - [Moderator] Do you have a question? - Oh yeah, I have a few books, actually, at the stand, if you want me to sign it and stuff. Thank you for the plug! So I think you probably just stumbled on the ones that have a PhD, but, I can share, I mean, one of my favourite letters from the book is actually a woman called Ira, and she used to be a professional fashion model. She studied modern history in Oxford, what do you do with modern history, really? I hope nobody's studying modern history! But, you know, her professional career, really, was in fashion modelling, right? And she was working in Hong Kong, New York, all of these things, and now she's the CEO of a cybersecurity startup. So that's kind of, like, you know, as extreme as you can imagine. And in between she became a single mother, as well, and she was homeless because she'd separated from her partner. So there's, that's sort of, kind of, what happens in life. There's another book contributor, she studied environmental studies, she went on this trek in Southern America, I think, and in the middle of a banana plantation, she had this idea, and she got really passionate about sustainability and sustainable processes. She came back, and a lot of her friends, I think, got married, and she kind of discovered that the diamond industry was really shitty, basically. And then she decided to start a sustainable diamond mine in Sierra Leone. And she went out there and built it, and she employed 90 people, and it just kind of, I mean, these are kind of the stories that are in the book as well, and these people don't have a PhD, or haven't even, or maybe marginally, studied what they then were doing. So I think, believing in your idea and making sure that you have the right support and the right team is the most crucial thing. And that's what I see with the network as well. There's a lot of people who are switching from banking to something completely else, like, an app for children or something like that. And, I mean, yeah! It's tricky because, I have to tell you, entrepreneurship is so tough. And I've thought several times, in my journey, to go back to the corporate and, you know, earn some money. If you are semi-happy and, you know, you probably don't have enough incentive to stick through it, basically, right? I mean, honest opinion. Because, I've seen a lot of women who joined Blooming Founders and then dropped out because, you know, it's not for them, and they had a better option in the end. In the end, it's, like, I sacrificed a lot in my lifestyle. I cut down my expenses down to, like, a third of what I used to spend, and I literally just spend the bare minimum on rent and, you know, surviving on some sort of food. I know, right? I go the Hotel Surrey events, free food everywhere! And that's just, like, the reality, honestly! I started selling unused makeup, clothes I own, et cetera, et cetera. Honestly, it's not easy. And yeah, I actually don't know how I would encourage someone who was semi-happy in the corporate world, because maybe, you know, you just start something on the side and see that you're building enough traction, and actual revenue, that you can then switch to your startup. If you go cold turkey, like I did, cuz I literally had to tap into my savings from day one, not a good strategy, actually. Very nerve-wracking. So maybe start something on the side, I think that's what I would probably recommend. - [Moderator] Okay, any other questions? - Yes, I think, I have one story which actually is, like, was the first big event that I've done in London for, it wasn't called Blooming Founders at the time, but basically I'd founded a crowdfunding campaign when I started, because I thought, I'll raise some money to kind of start the organisation, the company. So I organised an even at the Huxton, in Holbourne, and they just opened, so they wanted to get women in, and people in, and I'd done this showcase of different female founders and brands and stuff like that. At the time I was still very brand-led, because I wasn't as much in tech as I am now. But one of the startups that was there was called Double Dutch Drinks, it's a drinks brand, a premium mixer for gin and tonic. Or other drinks. And the two girls were graduates from UCL, they won the Bright Ideas Competition, I think that was called, the uni competition. And they created the drinks, and literally, that day, they got the first batch of those drinks from their manufacturer. So they carried those drinks to the party. Put them there, and then everybody's sort of, then, tastes it, and looked at the labels, et cetera, et cetera. And it happens that there were some people from a hospitality magazine, it's called EP, and they support drinks and food and hospitality entrepreneurs. And then they kind of reported about that and did a profile on them, and that kind of led to other things and other things and other things, I don't even know what happened, basically. But now, they've built a business, they're distributing across Europe, they're in Target in the US, so stuff happened, basically, and it's really, you know, as a female founder you really have to put yourself out there, right? I mean, on average, per month, I speak, probably, at five to eight events, basically. Cuz you have to put yourself out to spread your message, and that's how you create opportunities for yourself. Because you never know who's going to sit in the audience, and will be, like, oh, I like this girl. Or, like, the two girls, basically, or like their product. So I think that's kind of like one story that I know. Or, that I like to tell. Because I really, I still remember them with these, like, you know these like grandma trolleys, you know? Like, it was that. So it was fun. The last question, yeah. Yup, so, in terms of outreach, I have been basically doing events for female founders, I invited them to speak at my panels, and so I selected a few of them, I asked them to recommend me to other people, because people who, women who've made it, fittingly, know other women who've made it. And then I also did a nomination page on my website. So I just described the project, what I wanted to do, and basically, if you know an amazing female founder, please nominate her. So I kind of like spread that over social media, and I think, a big supporter was Mike Butcher from TechCrunch, and he shared it on his Facebook wall, and that kind of got me a lot of leads from abroad, so from the US and other countries. And, I've also done, just, LinkedIn, cold outreach. Just messaging people, and when you add a personal note, you know, I'm writing this book, are you interested? Not like that, that was probably the worst channel, but I got a few through it. And I also leveraged the Startup Weekend network. So I organised Startup Weekends, it's a community-led, volunteer-led thing, but it's global, I mean, there's more Startup Weekends than Starbucks in countries. So, it's pretty global, and basically, that's how I reached out to, you know, New Zealand, and I really sort of, at some point, when I realised, oh my god, I had all of these sort of geographies covered, and there's, like, South America that was still empty, and, like, you know, Australia, New Zealand that were still empty, and Africa was still empty. I really tried to push those points through the Startup Weekend network. So bottom line, leverage your network, and make other people recommend other people. Cuz then, you know, it's easier to get to those people, to communicate to them, and then sometimes you will get private email addresses that you would never get otherwise. And in terms of, what was the second question again? How I selected them! And so obviously, I got the draughts that they did, and I could read it, so I wanted, from a diversity perspective, I didn't want everybody to write the same thing. Even though there is some overlap in some letters. But just, kind of, the interestingness of the story, the way they wrote, like, their insights and what they shared, basically. Because I wanted to have it as diverse as possible. Also in terms of thinking styles, because that's an aspect of diversity, I think that's a, you know, I find really interesting, and rarely anybody talks about. But cognitive diversity, you know. Some people in the book are very emotional, and they could be, like, authors themselves, really. And some people are just, like, bullet points. But, you know, it's just different thinking styles.